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In Search of Greener Grass

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
In Search of Greener Grass

In Search of Greener Grass

One thing we do in comics culture is dream of everyone else liking us as much as we like ourselves. That’s not strictly limited to comics, naturally — in fact, it is probably entirely human nature, which is why “The Grass Is Greener On The Other Side Of The Lawn” is such a well known aphorism.

I generally think, however, that we’d all be a lot happier if we learned to be pleased with the things that we have — that other aphorism of “A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush.” That doesn’t say that you need to be complacent about things, certainly — in fact, one should always strive against complacency, and attempt to leave things better than they found them — but too often we can’t see the power and wonder of things that surround us every day.

In the more than a quarter century that I’ve been selling comics, I’ve watched this industry and its participants scurry after new market after new market, rather than making enough efforts to support and husband our existing base. I’ve watched for decades now as the punditry declared that the mass audience was awaiting us, just over the next hill, and all we needed was to throw off the shackles of the Direct Market system, and then comics could arise, phoenix-like, and we’d finally be in the promised land of milk and honey.

Which has never really happened, has it?

So, when I hear many of the arguments for lets-dismantle-the-DM-to-be-pro-digital, I can’t help but think we’ve been here before, and the results weren’t as dramatic and game changing as many people seem to think they are.

Let me start with this as a base premise: comics, in America at least, are a niche market. That niche can (and does!) slowly change as time goes on, but to turn a non-comics reading person into a comics reading one usually requires some form of guide to do so — the general American public does not naturally gravitate to comics on their own.

Or to put it another way: simply putting comics on a shelf somewhere does not, in and of itself, sell those wares. Mere product availability is only one of several things that need to happen in order for commerce to succeed.

Punditry at the time of comics second great move towards bookstores (the first was post-“Maus,” but there just weren’t enough products on hand for a market to coalesce) insisted that because DM stores were so superhero fixated, and that generalist bookstores weren’t, that once we cracked that market, sales would then explode. That’s even a reasonable assumption because, clearly, there are significantly more generalist book stores than specialty Comic Book Stores — sheer math would call that a safe bet. Yet, the DM is an annual business over $400 million, and bookstore sales as reported to BookScan are “only” in the $180 million range. Those BookScan numbers are clearly low by some unknowable amount, and anecdotally some publishers tell me it’s more like 50/50, but given the greater number of venues in the bookstore world, and the perceived superhero bias in the DM, shouldn’t those numbers be even more lopsided?

Instead, it turns out that specialists, per-capita, do better than generalists (go figure!) — even specialists who conventional wisdom declares are utterly and lopsidedly biased towards a single genre of the medium.

What this says to me is that the punditry is usually wrong about the actual on-the-ground reality of selling niche material (let alone what might be considered a sub-niche within that niche when you’re talking about genres other than superheroes) — it isn’t enough to simply have material on racks, efforts have to be made (both within and without the DM!) to actually sell that material, to create market awareness and consumer demand. Even that “core superhero product” is still a massively niche audience to the general public.

Honestly, the sad fact of the matter really is that a significant portion (and, really, probably the majority) of comics material that is published today has no “natural paying constituency” of more than a few thousand people at most, and if you want that work to sell past that “predisposed core” you need to work hard to educate both the retailer and the consumer — merely having, say, bookstore distribution doesn’t mean a tremendous amount if you’re not convincing retailers to put that book on the shelves; and, having crossed that first barrier, doesn’t mean a tremendous amount if you’re not convincing consumers to open their wallets and take those books off the retailer’s shelves.

At the end of the day, I believe that an enormous amount of time/effort/money is spent every day in chasing after new markets that could be better spent in improving and growing current channels — it would take so very little to encourage entrepreneurship in the Direct Market (where per capita quantities are higher, and sales channels are often more profitable), and I think that the results of dollars spent will be much stronger if they’re spent in the established channel of specialists. We can talk about this a bit later.

Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely awesome that there’s additive markets (be they bookstores, digital, or even in the future when we’ll have comics played directly onto our corneas), and, by all means, work those markets — you’d be foolish to not to — but in the effort to please one segment of your business, try not to forget your core. Or, worse still, undermine your core. That’s not smart business.

The problem is that we consider far too much of our problems within individual vacuums, and don’t spend a lot of time considering the overall picture. Virtually every problem this business has is a result of publisher action (or inaction), and of following the easiest path.

Consider, for example, “waiting for the trade,” a topic which has again recently come to the forefront over the potential danger James Robinson’s new (and wonderful) twelve-issue “Shade” miniseries appears to have found itself. A great deal of consumer comments were generated (too many of which were, “Huh, I didn’t even know that was out”), but one common thread was that a, perhaps, disproportionate number of people were waiting for the final collection, instead of buying the serialization. Many people even went so far as to say they were waiting to buy it in hardcover, so as to match the “Starman Omnibuses” already upon their shelves.

That’s a reasonable and sane desire, of course — but what I was struck by was the expectation there was going to be a collection, no matter what.

This problem is essentially one that Marvel and DC have created on their own: the expectation of the audience that everything they want will be collected in TP — because they often make it appear that way — but the problem is both that it’s kind of not true (lots of stuff doesn’t ever get reprinted, or, more importantly, stay in print for very long), and it works against the publisher’s best long-term interests.

As a retailer, it is overwhelmingly true that virtually every book sells much much better in serialization than in book format. There are exceptions, of course, and some of those exceptions are so awesomely slanted the other direction (your “Bones” or “Walking Deads”) that that is the standard by which too many people assume that’s How Things Work.

It isn’t, however. Most collections of work are only going to sell a percentage of their serialized sales — and if Comic X is a poor seller, the odds are overwhelmingly high that it is going to continue on to be a poor seller as a collection.

I’m not sure if you the consumer, or even you the industry observer, have any idea just how many books are in print and available to stock; or, for that matter, how many new book collections get released each and every week. We’re looking at completely unsustainable numbers of things. While I consider Comix Experience a bookstore that specializes in comics (both in dollars sold, and rack space devoted, things-with-a-spine are, and have been the majority of our sales for a very very long time now), I couldn’t even consider stocking every single book released — there isn’t the rack space or the consumer demand to do so. And, even among the books I do choose to stock, a distressingly high percentage of them end up in the sale boxes a year or more later because they never sold even a single copy.

Don’t get me wrong here: the profits from the hits (being able to sell every page of “Walking Dead,” every day, to every comer, in multiple formats is awesome), more than makes up for the mistakes in a properly curated store — but no one can ever expect a permanent collection of any given body of work is a “sure thing” sales wise, because I can show you boxes of material in my back room where that was very wrong.

And, unfortunately, the expectation that publishers have created on the full availability of backlist, begins to depress the sales of the serialization, as purportedly it is in the case of “Shade.” But the serialization is the economic engine that drives the comic book market. I almost typed “American” there, but it’s just as true of Japan and manga as well — and, hell, the whole manga explosion in the US, with the $10-for-200-pages model couldn’t have even begun to have happened if the creative costs of the work hadn’t been long before amortized.

Thus, it is absolutely essential to ensure that serialization’s economic engine be husbanded — and any move that would threaten that engine must be vigorously opposed.

I see the attraction of “Oh, they’ll really love and want us if only we’re over there”, I really do — but, really, if I were God of Comics, I’d be throwing a whole lot more resources at the non-returnable specialists, because you’re going to get a better bang for your buck there.

A package of free/reduced racks, free/reduced POS and equipment, free/reduced starting inventory for entrepreneurs who wish to invest $X of their own money to open new stores in areas that are underserved by current DM retailers, could cost very little in real dollars, and have a much more dramatic impact on sales that anything else we do as an industry. Picture 4000 new entrepreneurs being given an at-cost package of, say, $10k each — a total cost of $40 million dollars. Even if ninety percent of those entrepreneurs failed within a year, the 400 remaining new stores, assuming $300k/year gross sales, would generate $120 million in non-returnable annual economic activity. That would be tremendous.

The biggest problem the Direct Market has always had isn’t that some of them (a minority I think) are superhero-only mancaves, but that there are just not enough stores on the ground outside of certain individual markets. It’s almost impossible to do, say, advertising if people have to drive two hours to get to a store.

I know that the natural next counter argument (having had Jeff Lester make it to me as we discussed this the other day) is that digital puts a 24 hour/day store right in your pocket, and I think that there’s certainly several differences between an Internet e-commerce site and a physical store, but I think the central one is that while an app may in fact be a cheaper and easier way to get something that you already know you want, a physical store and the browsing experience is almost always going to do a better job at exposing you to the things that you never even knew that you might want. And the fact of the matter is that most of the American public doesn’t even know it might like comics. They need a guide.

I think it’s awesome to have a comic shop in your pocket, but I have to tell that you, for Ease of Use and Ability to Sell to the person who has no idea what they want, I’ll put my physical store up against any app, program or website any day of the week. Any physical store, for that matter — a generalist book store will probably do a better job of selling comics to I-didn’t-know-I-wanted-that-guy than an app will — but specialists cannot help but be better because of that very specialization.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization, even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer! Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here.

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